• 3-minute read
  • 16th December 2020

5 Words and Phrases Popularized by Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born on this day (December 16) in 1775. She is best known as the author of books like Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma. But did you know she also helped to popularize several terms and phrases that are common in modern English? It’s true!

In this post, for example, we’ve picked out five everyday words and phrases that you might never have heard were it not for Jane Austen.

1. Dress a Salad

Food lovers will know the phrase “dress a salad,” meaning “apply dressing to a salad.” But not many know that the first written record of this phrase comes from Jane Austen. In Pride and Prejudice, she wrote:

These two girls had been above an hour in the place, happily employed in visiting an opposite milliner, watching the sentinel on guard, and dressing a salad and cucumber.

Austen does not, however, specify whether there were croutons.

2. Doorbell

A “doorbell” was not a common item in the mansions of Austen’s novels. But the term does pop up in Pride and Prejudice:

Elizabeth had scarcely time to disclaim all right to the compliment, before their approach was announced by the door-bell, and shortly afterwards the three gentlemen entered the room.

And it appears in her final completed novel, Persuasion:

There can be no doubt that Lady Russell and Anne were both occasionally thinking of Captain Benwick, from this time. Lady Russell could not hear the door-bell without feeling that it might be his herald.

The fact that doorbells were relatively new at the time may also explain the hyphens, which we do not use in this word any more.

3. Family Portrait

Austen first introduced readers to the “family portrait” in Mansfield Park:

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Of pictures there were abundance, and some few good, but the larger part were family portraits

These aren’t quite “family portraits” as we’d think of them today (i.e., a photo or painting of an entire family). Austen is referring to a series of individual portraits depicting people from many generations of the same family.

4. Smarten Up

The first recorded case of someone using “smarten up” to mean “make more tidy and stylish” comes from Austen’s novel Emma. In chapter 10, she describes the vicarage where Mr. Elton lives as:

[A]n old and not very good house, almost as close to the road as it could be. It had no advantage of situation; but had been very much smartened up by the present proprietor.

This is one of several terms Austen is cited for in the OED.

5. Catch Someone’s Eye

The first time we see this phrase – meaning “attract attention by making eye contact” – in writing is in Pride and Prejudice, where Austen says:

[T]urning around he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

Impressively modern language aside, though, we hope you won’t be as cruel as Mr. Darcy the next time you “catch someone’s eye”!

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